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Mon, 19 October 2020

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Current drug laws aren’t working, it’s time we end the criminalisation of drug use

Current drug laws aren’t working, it’s time we end the criminalisation of drug use

The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act simply does not work: it doesn’t prevent the misuse of drugs and it doesn’t protect society from them, writes Tommy Sheppard MP. | PA Images

4 min read

My Private Members Bill seeks immediate, practical changes designed to help problem drug users and calls for the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The simmering crisis of drug addiction hasn’t gone away while we tackle Covid-19. Thousands of people are dying. The law is not fit for purpose. The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act simply does not work: it doesn’t prevent the misuse of drugs and it doesn’t protect society from them.

Instead it compounds the problem by driving the trade underground and criminalising users who are left torn between the threat of violence and the threat of arrest.

I can think of no other piece of legislation in a major area of social policy which has remained intact for so long. Half a century after its introduction it is surely time it was reviewed.

On Tuesday, 29th September, I introduced a Private Members Bill with cross-party support. It didn’t seek to repeal the 1971 Act, though I’d argue the government needs to comprehensively review the legislative framework. Instead it sought immediate, practical changes designed to help problem drug users.

This cannot be tackled from a justice perspective – it is a health problem

Often, I hear those opposed to reform argue that reducing criminal sanctions upon drug users and adopting a public health approach somehow represents going “soft”, making it easier to access drugs and therefore increasing the problem.

This is an argument without evidence. Drug laws have been changing quickly and dramatically through the world in the last 20 years - nowhere have these changes made the problem worse. Instead, in places like Portugal, public health approaches have reduced not only deaths, but the number of users and the amount they consume. Four deaths per million – compared to over 85 in UK.

5546 people died from problem drug use in the UK in 2018. Every one was somebody’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mum or dad. This cannot be tackled from a justice perspective – it is a health problem.

Much recent debate has been concerned with the legal framework for so-called drug consumption rooms. These are places where users can consume their own drugs under medical supervision.

It makes me furious to hear these described as shooting galleries, implying a public facility being used for leisure or entertainment. I have visited them in Germany, Canada and Portugal. They look like any other health treatment centres. The demeanour of the users and the character of operation are as far away from most people’s idea of recreational as it’s possible to get.

[Drug consumption rooms] keep people alive today so we can make those interventions tomorrow

I appreciate that some people simply cannot understand how allowing people to take drugs helps them deal with their problem. They contend that we need to focus on getting people medical help, benefits advice and housing support.

They could not be more wrong. Drug consumption rooms are not an alternative to these things. They keep people alive today so we can make those interventions tomorrow - you cannot give advice to a dead person.

Because drug consumption is illegal it is done behind closed doors – often alone. Most of the thousands who overdosed last year did so unintentionally. They did not wish to end their life. This is a festering tragedy that afflicts every community in this land. The real horror is that it is entirely preventable.

That is what supervised drug consumption rooms are about. They are essentially overdose prevention centres.

The other thing this Bill calls for is the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. This would allow law enforcement to be directed elsewhere at more socially destructive crime and would allow health authorities to develop diversionary strategies where people using drugs are directed towards health treatment and practical support. Experience elsewhere shows this works.

The government cannot keep its head in the sand. Action must be taken.

 

Tommy Sheppard is Scottish National Party MP for Edinburgh East.

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